The process between the conception of a new television series and the broadcast of the first episode is long and complicated, involving creators who will write an outline, network executives who will approve it and suggest improvement, scriptwriters who will work on individual episodes, each of which must again be approved or revised as appropriate, not to mention all the set, costume and prop designers, the composers and musicians, the actors, the directors who will contribute to and hone the final product.
The latest bespoke offering of SyFy whose return to their roots of fantastical television has brought 12 Monkeys, Dark Matter, Killjoys, The Expanse, Wynonna Earp and Hunters, Van Helsing boasts one producer, one co-producer, two consulting producers, two associate producers, nine executive producers including creator Neil LaBute and two co-executive producers, yet apparently none of them had the wherewithal to shout out across the assembled “expertise” that the show is, top to bottom, beginning to end, almost ubiquitously terrible in every way a television show can be.
With a premise which can at kindest be called “derivative,” the presence of LaBute, acerbic creator of the misanthropic In the Company of Men, the scabrous Your Friends & Neighbours and the vicious stealth of The Shape of Things as well as the stage plays Filthy Talk for Troubled Times and In a Forest, Dark and Deep, offered hope for a radical and incisive dissection of exposed people in terrible circumstances.
Unfortunately it is worth remembering that LaBute was also responsible for The Wicker Man and Death at a Funeral, two unnecessary and generally derided remakes whose originals required no revisions or revisitations, with even those aspects of The Wicker Man which were successful – the exquisite Ellen Burstyn and her matriarchy – overwhelmed by the swarming directionless madness of the whole endeavour.
That Van Helsing is not able to compete with the misguided folly of Stephen Sommers’ indescribably awful 2004 film of the same name, so bad that not even Hugh Jackman’s usually magnetic charisma could save it, is principally down to budget and ambition, for throughout it feels cheap and nasty, meandering and tired, though in and of itself it is no less an outrageous liberty with Bram Stoker’s cherished source material.
It is the year 2019 three years after the Rising, and vampires rule the streets following a natural disaster, a volcano in Wyoming, after which the world fell apart. All that is left are feeders and ferals, and in the barricaded Seattle Valley General Hospital, US marine Axel (Hell on Wheels’ Jonathan Scarfe) watches over his two charges, Doc (The Returned’s Rukiya Bernard) and Vanessa Helsing (Legends’ Kelly Overton), one infected and become a feeder herself, the other in a coma for three years.
The return of a long overdue expedition brings trouble to Axel’s quiet house; fellow soldier Ted (Hell on Wheels’ Tim Guinee) has brought survivors, but they are desperate and do not fit easily into the requirements of their makeshift sanctuary, particularly John (Bates Motel’s David Cubitt) who became separated from his wife en route and now wishes to stage a search and rescue operation which Axel knows to be futile.
The opening scenes trying to create a sense of all that was once normal and now lost, the enclosed setting of the near-derelict hospital doesn’t feel claustrophobic or convey the end of the world so much as the sense that the production couldn’t afford more, and even within the first forty five minutes the bare narrative is already looping in circles punctuated by painfully clumsy fight scenes, boding badly for any ongoing interest.
Where a pilot episode is most often geared to sell the broader concept of a show to an eager audience, directed by Defiance’s Michael Nankin from a script by LaBute and Continuum’s Jonathan Walker, Van Helsing hopes that liberal splashing of blood will overshadow the lack of character and flat acting, with only Scarfe, Bernard and True Blood’s Christopher Heyerdahl fighting against the endemic ennui which seems at odds with the apocalypse, the latter two characters effectively mute but with more presence than the bland, bickering survivors.
With SyFy’s own Z Nation already a budget option for those whose fix of The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead remains insufficient, Van Helsing apparently desires to mimic that already superfluous tone of gloom with vampires supplanting zombies, ignoring that it has already been done previously in Jim Mickle’s superior Stake Land, with the liberal appropriations from Blade, Daybreakers and The Strain insufficient to patch over the central absence of inspiration or interest.